Will Rolling Stone's Dzhokhar Tsarnaev cover hurt sales?

Story highlights

  • Retailers boycotting the issue might not have a big impact on sales
  • Rolling Stone's circulation is 95% subscription
  • Controversy sometimes increases magazine sales
  • The magazine's ad page figures dropped in 2012, but have risen in 2013

The outrage is clear, but the impact on Rolling Stone's bottom line is not.

As some retailers refuse to sell the latest issue, featuring a controversial photo of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover, it seems inevitable that some people who might have picked up a copy now won't.

But any immediate loss could be minuscule for Rolling Stone overall. And recent history suggests that the frenzy could ultimately help move copies.

"It is absolutely impossible to predict what newsstands sales are going to be," Rolling Stone Managing Editor Will Dana told NPR after the anger erupted. "... It's something you have to be mindful of, but at the same time, put out of your mind on a case-by-case basis. ...We really go with our gut on these things, usually."

While the focus has largely been on newsstand sales, they account for only a tiny portion of the magazine's overall circulation. Rolling Stone's circulation is 95% subscription, accounting for about 1.4 million copies. The remaining 5%, about 75,000 copies, comes from individual sales.

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Rolling Stone did not immediately respond Tuesday to a CNN request for information on how the latest issue is selling.

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The controversy bump

While social media is full of messages calling for a boycott -- as well as posts defending and supporting the cover -- uproars can sometimes increase sales.

Ad Age puts it this way: "Outrage aside, controversial magazine covers often pay."

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It points to recent covers of Bloomberg Businessweek. One had "phallic cover art" about hedge funds; another, about airline mergers, was "illustrated by an image of two planes seemingly having sex."

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The "more buzzy covers" have lifted sales by up to 70% above yearly average, an official with Bloomberg Businessweek told Ad Age.

A Time issue last year with a cover showing a woman breastfeeding her 5-year-old son led to complaints, and some retailers refused to sell it. The issue went on to sell slightly above average, according to Ad Age.

Rolling Stone sales: a mixed picture

Some critics call the Rolling Stone cover a desperate effort to boost sales.

Rolling Stone's circulation has stayed relatively steady, edging slightly upward, in recent years. The Audit Bureau of Circulations (which recently changed its name to the Alliance for Audited Media) calculates 1.45 million sales in 2007, and 1.48 million in 2011.

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Recent ad page figures -- a metric often used to determine a magazine's health -- show a mixed picture. Rolling Stone's ad pages jumped 5% in the first half of 2013, "after a slow 2012 in which the magazine saw its ad pages decline 14.4%," Ad Age reported.

Much of the magazine industry has been suffering a loss in ad pages. In the first half of this year, the five major news magazines lost a combined 18% compared with the same period last year, according to the Pew Research Center.

Amid all the talk about Rolling Stone's cover, some say the focus on the story itself inside the magazine has been lost.

The lengthy piece looks at how Tsarnaev -- as the cover puts it -- "fell into radical Islam and became a monster."

What do you think? Weigh in on Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments below.